Against all odds, I appreciated this book. I was so skeptical when I picked it up. The label #1 New York Times Bestseller doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence these days. And the cover design on the hardcover copy I borrowed from the library is just plain creepy (read to the end to see the said creepy cover). Also, I tend to dislike 90% of the contemporary titles labeled “Young Adult.” But somehow, I did find this one memorable, although I have some reservations about its suitability for the intended audience.
The Plot in a Nutshell
Two British women from vastly different backgrounds form a close friendship amid the turmoil of World War II. One ends up captured as a spy and interrogated in a Gestapo headquarters. Tortured and broken, she contemplates betraying her country. Meanwhile, her friend is on a mission to blow up the Gestapo headquarters.
This brief synopsis doesn’t capture the superb plotting and alternating voices that make this book memorable.
This book is brutal. The Gestapo were notorious for the horrors they inflicted on prisoners, so it’s accurate. But it’s tough reading. Even as an adult, it was upsetting to read about the torture scenes. Images like pins being stuck into a woman’s breasts stick with you. You understand why a prisoner might break and betray secrets.
There’s also a lot of violence. Again, this is realistic for the setting in occupied France. Pilots die in crashes. Resistance fighters die from gun shots. The Nazis kill and torture many prisoners. They guillotine a teenage girl and make another girl stand close enough to be soaked in her blood. In a finale gun battle, they shoot off two prisoners for every Nazi soldier shot. Later, they deliberately kill prisoners slowly, shooting one joint at a time until they black out from pain.
In terms of other content, there’s a good bit of sexual references, though no explicit sexual content. At one point, one of the main characters lets herself be groped in exchange for a stack of paper. At another point, the other main character complains about a resistance member who a “lech” and keeps trying to touch women inappropriately. There’s a mention of rape.
When it comes to language, there’s a decent amount, ranging from b__ch to f__k. I would say this book somewhat glorifies cursing. One of the main characters “curses like a sailor” and the other admires her boldness.
True to the time period, most characters smoke cigarettes constantly. There’s also some alcohol use.
The Big Problem Morally
The most morally problematic part of this book is the concluding crisis. The captured character is on her way to be tortured and killed painfully by the Nazis. She sees her friend and begs her in a private code phrase to shoot her now to avoid the slow and painful death the Nazis have planned for her. And the friend with the gun does kill her. To make it worse, all the authority figures in the book tell the shooter she did the right thing to “save” her friend from a painful death. Obviously this opens up a whole can of worms morally in terms of euthanasia, assisted suicide, and so forth.
Parents Be Forewarned
So there you have all the nitty gritty about why you might hesitate to hand Code Name Verity to your teen. For younger teens, sensitive teens, or if you just want to keep your kids innocent longer, skip this one. For older mature teens who are ready for a look at the sheer horror of life for a captured spy in World War II, this book paints a powerful picture. But be prepared to have a thorough discussion about the morality of killing someone to save them from suffering further.
Interested in other chapter books about World War II?
Check out my World War II list for younger teens: World War II Chapter Books for Catholic Kids